Only we few insiders in the produce industry know the grapes in the retail market where we shop come from Chile in the winter. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it is safe to say most U.S. consumers are oblivious to where much of the produce they consume comes from, particularly imported fruit.
Consumer awareness of Chilean grapes probably was at its unfortunate zenith 25 years ago. The events of that long-ago time likely don’t register with the Millennials and under crowd. Even Gen X-ers may not recall the hubbub about Chilean grapes and cyanide.
Industry veteran Rick Eastes of California shared some thoughts with me on his recollections about that infamous episode. He writes:
It was a Friday the 13th(March 13), 1989 that we learned that in the early morning hours the FDA alleged they had found 2 individual Flame seedless grapes had been injected with cyanide in one box out of 190,000 boxes of grapes on a vessel name the Almeria Star.
It was later established in testing performed at UC Davis that at the reported level of cyanide found in the grapes they would have had to be in the possession of the FDA at the time of the contamination, or the test was in fact ‘an error’.
In historical perspective, the PanAm flight had been blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland by terrorists, and the State Department had reason to believe there was a bomb on board, but failed to warn the public.
The show ‘60 Minutes’ had recently done an ‘expose’ of a growth regulator called Alar that gave red delicious apples their ‘5-point’ characteristics. Lab test had shown that at massive amounts, Alar might cause cancer in rats, and ’60 Minutes’ embarrassed the FDA for ‘failing to protect the public’s food supply.’
No other cyanide was ever found, and it was established at the level it was found, a person would have had to consume several hundred pounds of grapes at one sitting just to become ill.
Upon reflection, it would appear that the powers-to-be in Washington felt it was appropriate to show that both the FDA and State Department were ‘on the job’ to protect the American public from a terrorist plot to poison the public from the country of Chile, then headed by ‘dictator’ Augusto Pinochet.
The debacle cost the industry in excess of $300 million (1989 Dollars), for no good reason.
It seems the use of fear in justifying its actions to protect against terrorism and the whole issues of food safety and how to protect the public have their modern beginnings 25 years ago today.
Let’s hope that someday our society finds the way to make well considered decisions based on the reality of the circumstances.
TK: Well said, Rick. In 1992, 2,000 Chilean fruit growers sued the U.S. government for $212 million over losses incurred during the cyanide scare. But you can’t fight city hall, or the FDA. Chilean exporters have endured and prospered over 25 years, but the cyanide grape scare and the damage it caused hasn’t been forgotten 25 years later - at least by we few, perhaps.
The USDA report indicates lower volumes of table grape exports are mainly due to abnormally cold weather during last spring in the main production areas which affected mainly the early varieties like Sugraone and Flame Seedless. The U.S. receives about 46% of Chilean grape exports, with China the second leading customer with 10%.
Here is a spreadsheet I put together showing U.S. imports of Chilean grapes since 1989